While I was browsing Pinterest I came across some Ladybird book illustrations that had me all misty eyed in no time! Those little hardback books have such an endearing quality full of joyful memories. This illustration was the first book in the Key Word Reading Scheme the mainstay of primary education in the 1970s. Just looking at the pictures brings back vivid memories of toil as the five year old me tried to decipher the strange squiggles -into words.
Despite never being read stories and books, once I learned – I became an avid reader -these books were beautifully illustrated – the series depicting family life of the 1950’s that was already seen as old fashioned in the 1970’s but had a profound influence on the children it was educating – including me.
Ladybird books were the start of my life long love of reading, seeing this picture gave me a tingle of joy – Beauty and the Beast was beyond my reading ability when it was a favourite, I scoured the pictures to decipher the story and that memory is vivid forty years later – The slight fear, the ugly monkey in fancy clothes, I could not understand why the girl in the story stayed with him. As an adult I can look upon this and see another underlying message, that beauty comes from within and rich people can make demands!
Another was Rumplestiltskin – he might have been a rather nasty character but I did feel that he was unfairly treated, by then my reading was much better and I have a clearer idea of the story. Imagine spinning straw into gold.
Another favourite was the Elves and the Shoemaker (is that where my love of sewing came from?) Those beautiful clothes made for the Elves at the end were so quaint. Ladybird had a love affair with the 17th Century all the stories seemed to be set in that time frame, Cinderella, The Porridge Pot and Sleeping Beauty.
Ladybird did not just stick to reading schemes and fairy tales; there was a vast range of Learn about books with subjects covering Crafts, Nature books to Science, History and workplaces. It is why they are such a valuable resource for social history as well as illustrating the development of technology, the book on space included a trip to the moon long before the moon landings of the 1970s.
I remember thumbing these crafting books desperate to try out some of the projects, only now do I see the dawning of my crafting obsessions! I still collect crafting books that are running into six bookshelves. My love of sewing began with Ladybird.
There has been a great deal of criticism regarding the depiction of traditional White British Middle Class family life and stereotypical gender role models in the reading scheme – which makes me want to leap to their defence.
In 1960s versions Jane was shown helping her mother while Peter was helping his father wash the car. The illustrations were updated and altered a lot over the years. It is evidence of the shifting attitudes in society – the 70s was a decade of sexual liberation – shortly followed by racial equality. It is unfair to judge them as outdated and bigoted – they are representations of the society at that time. Values change with every generation but that doesn’t mean to say the past should be papered over.
The most striking memory when I see these illustrations was an overwhelming sense of being an outsider. My home life was very different, my poor father was working full time, managing a home and bringing up two children on his own while being in a deep and profound state of grief.
I had an idealised vision of what family life was like for everyone else – a realisation that there was a big part of family life missing. When we had a new housekeeper, I remember a vague expectation that I would return home to a table laid for tea and that she would be wearing an apron, but it was the 1970s -they shifted in and out my life with no explanations leaving broken promises behind. Oddly enough – when I see these pictures that state of confusion comes to the fore strongly – I knew never to ask questions so spent my childhood in a state of uncertainty. All this surfacing by looking at a few images!
That sense of alienation is not the fault of the books, times were very different, single parents were thankfully, rare. Yet I cannot help but wonder if these depictions positively influenced me when I had children of my own: I wanted to be a home maker, I baked with my children despite never having done it as a child myself and I remember trying to live up to a rather unrealistic ideal – one that still resonates with me after forty years.
Can these books be responsible, I wonder, for the growth of the Vintage Movement so popular in our culture today? There are so many women reaching out for the clothing and lifestyles of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Vintage Apron patterns abound and traditional home making skills are popular again – is there a deep seated perception about the past that remains imprinted from these early reading schemes I wonder?
I ponder if we are any closer to getting the balance right with reading schemes, my children’s books were alienating for them – no familiar domestic family but with Asian characters dressed in jeans and t’shirts called Biff and Chip. I believe that while politically correct the reading scheme books did not ignite the love of reading in my children. Reading with them became the medicine of our ‘reading time’ I had a sense of unease that my children’s reading was so political. Despite reading some joyful books with them, Dr Dog was a particular favourite neither became an avid reader until they were teenagers with the advent of Harry Potter.
What cannot be denied is the enduring appeal – the pictures are so beautifully done. Ladybird employed talented professional artists – Harry Winfield and Martin Aitchison
I love the movement of the water is depicted in this illustration, and the changing nature of the fox is vivid.
Harry Wingfield was an artist who worked for Ladybird up until his death in the 1980s, he illustrated the nature books and many of the Look and See Series- they are simply beautiful. I have found memories of looking at those beautiful illustrations with awe – there was so much detail to explore
The small bite sized books contained beautifully drawn infographics, making complex subjects accessible to a young audience. There was no sense of dumbing down, science, geography, travel, technology the subject matter was vast.
Ladybird are celebrating their centenary this year as the publishing company was set up in 1915, you can see some of the illustrations at the House of Illustration in London until mid September.
I am sure I am not alone in the love of Ladybird – who are still publishing today there are many enthusiasts out there.
Feel free to share your personal memories of these delightful books, I would be thrilled to read how special they are to you.